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Rehabilitative Engineering – Assistive Devices to Make Life Simpler


Name: Tom Rybak
Job Title: Rehabilitation Engineer
Where: Richmond, VA
Employer: Dept. of Rehabilitative Services, Commonwealth of Virginia
Years of Experience: 15
Education: BFA-Painting, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; MFA-Painting, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Relevant Experience: Exhibits Fabricator, Science Museum of VA; Cabinetmaker, various shops
Annual Salary: Find average salaries with PayScale's Research Center.


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Becoming a Rehabilitation Engineer

If you want to combine compassion with science to help people with disabilities, consider a career in rehabilitative engineering. This versatile career uses both sides of your brain: the creative and mathematical.

Tom Rybak's art school background and knowledge of mechanical engineering helped him choose this unique career path.  In this Salary Story, Tom Rybak discusses the challenges he faced in becoming a rehabilitation engineer, and what he loves most about his job. Tom’s inspiring career helps make life simpler for people with disabilities by providing them with devices that give them greater independence and quality of life.

Job Description of a Rehabilitation Engineer

I build custom assistive devices to make life simpler for people with disabilities. The assistive devices help them perform employment related tasks as well as other individual daily living tasks, which in turn gives them greater independence.

When I build assistive devices, I start by researching existing products to see if something is available off-the-shelf. Often there is something that is partly useful, but it might need modification to work for a specific individual because of the nature of their disability or the types of duties required for their job. Sometimes we have to make a device from scratch. My modifications include things like modifying switches, putting buttons on electronic devices for easier access, and building stands to hold items where they can be reached by someone in a wheelchair, or from their bed because they have a limited range of motion. I also do things like adjust or fabricate computer workstations for better ergonomics, and add steps to tractors for farmers with arthritis in their legs.

Sometimes I make recommendations for home and work site architectural models so that they meet ADA requirements. For this I work with contractors who perform work by obtaining bids. I provide oversight and final inspection of their work. Sometimes I also conduct workshops and training sessions to share my experiences with those in and outside of our agency.

PayScale: What experience preceded you in becoming a rehabilitation engineer?

Tom: I went to art school since I wanted to be an artist and planned to teach at a college level. When I got out of school I needed a job but could not find any teaching positions. I worked as a cabinetmaker and carpenter for several years so I could pay my bills. Then a friend told me about an open position in a fabrication shop at the Science Museum that required less than two years of building interactive exhibits, and worked with a combination of materials such as wood, metal, plastic and electro-mechanical components. So I applied and got the job.

Once I got the job, I realized that I could never go back to working in a production line cabinet shop since I loved the variety and creativity needed to solve the problems of each exhibit. Then I found an opening at DRS for a newly created fabricator position and got it. After five years, my supervisor left for a better position and I was able to get my current position, where I have been ever since.

PayScale: What do you love about your job as a rehabilitation engineer?

Tom: I love this job because every day is different. I get to use all of my creative skills to develop solutions that directly help people either keep or get a job and become taxpaying citizens. I have built up our fabrication shop from a couple of toolboxes and power hand tools to a well rounded workshop capable of working with all types of materials: wood, metal, plastic, fabric, and electronics. Nearly every day is different since each person's ability, need, and job is different. I thrive on the challenge of finding the right solution. I like that I get to work with a wide range of clients, family members, and co-workers. Often I work with a team of OT/PT, computer systems specialists, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and contractors to help remove barriers from employment.

PayScale: What are the biggest challenges for those interested in becoming a rehabilitation engineer?

Tom: It takes a long time to build up the skills needed to do this job right. You have to be open minded, flexible, and willing to take chances that will likely flop and leave you back at square one. You need to learn a lot about how things work, know how to build with many materials, research existing products, and reach out to others to obtain needed info on how to solve issues. You need to find solutions quickly to save job opportunities for clients, which is often the most difficult part of this job. You also need to learn basic medical info related to disabilities. If the condition is progressive you must consider how that will play into possible solutions in overcoming barriers.

PayScale: What advice can you offer regarding the qualifications to be a rehabilitation engineer?

Tom: It is a very difficult field since there are so few positions like this. Someone with an engineering background might have some advantages but few engineers are taught to be flexible and creative. Some biomedical engineer programs include rehab engineering, but my experience with several student interns from biomedical engineering is that their ability to perform the basics of my job were very poor. Only one out of five was really helpful to me. The others were more of a burden and got in my way.

Anyone wanting to go into this field should get experience with housing construction, cabinetry, welding, sewing, electronics, ADA guidelines, and be willing to get dirty on occasion. Additional experience working with disabilities and wheelchair repair would also be very useful. Basic medical, psychology, and any creative field experiences are also good.

PayScale: Could you name a few interesting moments in your career as a rehabilitation engineer?

Tom: Every day is different and often crazy. Nothing surprises me anymore.

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